Writers, festival bring history alive


First Posted: 4/25/2009

Saturday was a busy day around the area. Two proms, the Highland Games Festival at Laurel Hill, a 5K downtown, and the Free State of Patrick Festival were just a few of the activities going on.
I dropped in on the Free State of Patrick Festival Saturday afternoon to do a story and take a few pictures, and I found the event absolutely fascinating.
We have a story on page 1, but on the off chance you havent seen it yet, the festival was put together by local author and historian Tom Perry as a fundraiser for Dan River Park, and as a way for local authors and crafts people to come together and show off their wares. All totaled, more than a dozen authors showed up to sell, and talk about, their books.
And while there was some selling going, there was even more talking and story-trading.
Some of you will know from other columns Ive written that history is a particular interest of mine. Ive always believed the more we know about our ancestors and the times they lived in, the better we understand ourselves and what made us like we are.
Some of the tales you hear from historians and family old timers are just plain funny, too.
Im not sure Im free to share many that were being traded Saturday quite a few of the stories were preceded by a glance in my direction along with the admonishment This is off the record, so Ill simply relate a couple of incidents that have been passed down through my family. Both concern my grandfather.
The first is a story my dad has often told me, a bit tongue-in-cheek I believe, about when he was a boy and had to accompany his dad from the Franklin County, Va., farm where they lived and worked to the city market in Roanoke, Va., where they sold much of what they raised. On this particular trip to the market, they had taken some of the farm chickens theyd killed, plucked and eviscerated, as well as some of the produced theyd grown.
The story goes the day had been long and hot, most of what theyd brought into town had been sold, and all my grandfather had left to sell was a single chicken floating in a milky tub of water that had once been ice, and a few withered pieces of produce. He wanted to get rid of the chicken and the rest hed toss and they would head home.
A woman walked up and asked if my dad had any roasting chickens, and he pulled it from the tub. The lady pursed her lips, thought a few seconds, and said its a little small. You have any others? To which my grandfather replied Sure. He plunged the chicken back into the tub, felt around as if he were looking for another bird, then pulled the same one up, but put his other hand under it and held the chicken in such a manner that it looked a little plumper.
Yes, the woman said. Thats better. Ill take them both.
The second account is an explanation of how my grandfather ended up with a long, angry-looking scar on his forearm. Seems at one point he was running a country store, though the truth of the matter was he was selling moonshine out of the back. A few of the so-called revenue men found out and approached the store. My grandfather saw them coming, so he ran out back and slammed all his jugs of moonshine against the ground, breaking them open and spilling the contents I guess if it was on the ground and unusable, there was little the men could charge him with.
As the revenuers came out the back door, he smashed the final two jugs against one another. They shattered, and a shard of glass ripped into his arm and the very men coming to shut down his operation ended up performing some quick first aid to stop the bleeding, and then got him to a doctor. I suppose hes fortunate in one respect with all that alcohol soaking him, the chance for infection was probably pretty slim.
Anyway, stories like that, and better ones, were in abundance Saturday as the writers traded tales with one another, sharing them with folks coming into the festival and browsing the books.
Heres the thing. While those tales are often funny, they also can tell a deeper story. My grandfather, for instance. Why did he sell moonshine, constantly risking jail, or why would he try pulling a fast one on a woman in the city market, trying to sell the same chicken shed already rejected?
Well never know all that, for sure. But I can tell you that was an era when many families were starving, struggling to feed themselves just once or twice a day. People of his generation grew up in a time when manual labor and little education was the norm, as it had been for their parents and grandparents. He did what he did, in part, because of the social and economic climate around him. Because its all he knew how to do.
Hearing those old tales, and then putting them in the context of what was going on at the time, locally and nationally, can give great insight into why our ancestors lived and acted as they did, and how that affects each one of us two or three generations later.
The authors at Saturdays festival, and others like them, have through their books taken those personal accounts, combined them with sometimes painstaking research, and woven revealing and entertaining narratives that can delight and inform.
What more could a reader want?

John Peters is editor of The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at [email protected] or at 719-1931.

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